Are We Over-Writing Our Stories?

posted Nov 6, 2015, 9:03 AM by Martin Roy Hill   [ updated Dec 10, 2015, 8:18 PM ]

In a recent review of my book, Eden: A Sci-Fi Novella, a SFreader.com reviewer wrote, "It's a bit of a shock to find someone who can tell his story in 100 pages flat. Usually it's a trilogy at least. But Hill pulls it off." While I certainly appreciated the compliment, the reviewer's statement started me thinking. Are we guilty of over-writing our stories?

People have repeatedly asked me before why I wrote Eden as a novella rather than a full novel. I explained that when I started writing Eden, I initially considered it a short story. The deeper I got into the story, however, I realized it needed a larger forum. When I felt the story telling was complete, it was novella length.

That's not an unusual story. I remember hearing once — and this may be apocryphal — that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness began as a short story. When his editor asked why it was taking so long to write, Conrad retorted, "It grows." Whether this is true or not, obviously Conrad wrote the story of Marlow and Kurtz to the length he consider appropriate and no more, and left us with a classic in English letters.

Some of literature's finest books are, in fact, novellas. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Mann's A Death in Venice, Melville's Billy Budd, Steinbeck's The Pearl, and Dicken's A Christmas Carol are only a sampling of short novels that have added to the world's great literature.

By no means would I put Eden up with such works, but science fiction has its famous novellas, too. First to come to mind is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, a sci-fi classic that spawned three movies and, although it had nothing to do with zombies, is nevertheless considered the grandfather of the walking dead genre.

Writing novellas doesn't mean an author can't write longer works. Melville, after all, also wrote Moby Dick, a novel nearly as massive as its namesake. Leo Tolstoy, author of the equally imposing novel, War and Peace, also wrote several novellas.

Obviously, Melville and Tolstoy understood that a good book should only be as long as the story needs it to be. On the other hand, I once read a sci-fi novel that went on for nearly 1,000 inane, action-padded pages, and never reached a conclusion. The author seemed to assume if I got that far along, I'd buy the sequel to find out what happened to his characters. I didn't.

Not long ago I read an article on how short story markets, on the decline for decades, are making a comeback. Perhaps there is a growing interest among readers for short but high quality stories and, one hopes, short novels as well.